I have an old apple tree in the yard. It bears fruit, but the apples are small, misshapen and scabby. What can I do?"
Sound familiar? If there is one thing this North Country has plenty of, it's apple trees that haven't been pruned, sprayed or maintained in any way, shape or form, for years.
If they are going to produce quality fruit, apple trees (or any other fruit trees, for that matter) require regular maintenance. Pruning is fundamental. In fact, most commercial orchard owners will tell you that no other practice will improve the health and well being of fruit trees more than proper pruning at regular intervals.
Appropriate pruning can quickly restore the vigor of an older tree or aid and support young saplings with their development. And employing proper pruning practices will increase the yield and improve the quality of the fruit that trees in all stages of growth produce.
At the same time, selectively pruning out weak limbs will enable the tree to better support more bountiful loads of fruit. Suitable pruning also reduces the likelihood of pest problems, and makes any tree easier for its owner to work with.
Rejuvenation of older, overgrown trees is accomplished by first reducing the tree's overall height. This can be achieved by removing no more than one or two of the tallest limbs. Once this is done, you can prune the rest of the tree the same way that you would any other yard or orchard tree.
Pruning of trees consists of removing dead, damaged, diseased and insect-infested limbs, as well as waterspouts (which grow quite rapidly, produce no fruit, and greatly reduce exposure to sunlight at the center of the tree) and suckers that are growing up from the roots or from the base of the tree.
Any diseased or infested wood should be burned to help prevent reinfection or reinfestation.
Pruning more heavily in the upper portion of the tree and removing any branches that are growing toward the center of the tree will better enable adequate sunlight to reach fruit-producing branches. Limbs that hang below or across one another should be removed, too.
Always prune branches as close to the branch bark collar (the swelling where one branch joins another or where a limb is attached to the tree trunk) as possible. Never remove the collar or leave stubs.
Avoid over pruning, as this may stimulate too much growth, reducing fruit production.
Any pruning should be done in early spring keeping in mind that exposure to frigid weather can damage limbs that have been cut back.
Early season application of dormant oil is another worthwhile practice. Although dormant oil will not prevent or eliminate diseases that may be present (such as apple scab), it will help to eradicate insects that have overwintered on the tree bark. Dormant oil should only be used before bud break and when temperatures are expected to remain above freezing for at least 24 hours.
You can significantly beautify a yard or landscape by pruning and shaping trees, shrubs and bushes to make them more attractive. And fruit trees make wonderful additions to any site or setting. After all, is there any more beautiful harbinger of summer than apple (or cherry) trees covered with blossoms?
Richard L. Gast, Extension programs assistant, Horticulture and Natural Resources, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, FAX 483-6214 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.